Coronet Peak skifield boss Ross Copland says inexperienced ski tourers are risking their lives on the mountain.
Copland was forced to cancel grooming operations last Sunday after 10 near-misses between tourers and machinery the previous day.
Another 10 potential near-misses were avoided after staff were stationed on entrances to runs.
“The danger is people mixed with machinery,” he says. “It’s either them not being seen or potentially skiing into a winch cable.
“That’s got a likelihood of being a fatality.”
On a busy morning, before the season’s even underway, there can be as many as 60 ski tourers ‘skinning’ up the mountain before skiing down the slopes.
Copland says experienced hardcore backcountry tourers aren’t the problem. It’s a new breed of 30 to 40 year olds after fitness and adventure.
“They’ve generally got a low level of experience and very little awareness of risk.
“We had people climbing over winch cables and just making poor decisions about safety.”
The skifield operations run 24 hours a day, with groomers and other heavy machinery operating through the night.
But during the run-up to opening weekend, they also work through the day.
NZSki launched an engagement programme with the ski touring community last season, creating guidelines, such as wearing high-visibility gear, a head torch, taking food, and skiing in pairs.
Copland says a fatal accident or serious injury could see the mountain closed to ski tourers.
“That’s my biggest concern,” he says.
“I’ll fight that with every ounce of strength I have because I don’t believe it’s the right thing for the community.
“But if there’s a fatality or serious injury it could be enforced by Worksafe New Zealand.”
Copland says NZSki held discussions with the Department of Conservation, which it leases the land from, about the firm’s rights and responsibilities.
“We’re responsible for the safety or everyone who uses the reserve, not just paying guests.
“And it’s defined as a workplace under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. That legislation gives us onerous requirements over safety.”
Copland says it could come down to NZSki’s board of directors, who are ultimately liable.
“They might say the message isn’t getting through so the party’s over.”
NZ Alpine Club member Nigel Lloyd says he’s been amazed by the numbers of people going up to Coronet Peak.
“I know it must be causing the mountain guys some headaches, I can sympathise with them.
“But the bottom line for me is it’s actually public land and the issues they [NZSki] have all stem from them wanting to do whatever they want, whenever they like.
“When the season opens, they’ll do the risky stuff in the middle of the night.
“Last Saturday, they were grooming through the day - but the public has just as much right to be there.”
NZSki irked mountain users earlier this year by closing the Remarkables ski road.
Lloyd: “To say they might close Coronet to the public doesn’t sit well with me.”